ATLANTA >> Callista Gingrich has been a near constant presence at her husband’s side, a visible symbol that the twice-divorced House speaker is now a devoted family man.
But Gingrich’s third wife also is being cited by people close to him as a key factor in the staff revolt that has left his presidential campaign on life support.
At least 16 aides and advisers abandoned the Gingrich campaign on Thursday, an unprecedented exodus that has cast doubt on his viability as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Gingrich has pledged to push forward with his campaign and is set to offer a foreign policy address to a Jewish Republican group in Los Angeles on Sunday. It’s a speech that Gingrich hopes will reset his White House bid, and it’s a near certainty that his wife will accompany him.
In the implosion’s aftermath, officials close to the Gingrich campaign privately pointed fingers at Callista Gingrich as the source of the tension between her husband and his staff. They say she exerted enormous influence on the former House speaker, controlling his schedule and encouraging him to disappear on a luxury cruise in the Greek Isles just weeks after he got into the race. That trip was the final straw, for some, who pleaded with him not to go.
These officials said Gingrich ceded to his wife’s wishes, which sometimes involved his curtailing necessary time on the campaign trail in key states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private campaign business.
As criticism mounted, the candidate defended his wife’s involvement, saying that the two of them "make decisions as a couple."
"I think most couples would find that refreshing and not a problem," he said outside his home in McLean, Va., an upscale Washington suburb.
In fact, it may have been no different from other campaigns; friction between political spouses and paid campaign staff is common, with both competing for the candidate’s attention.
But several people involved in the campaign said Callista Gingrich was not the only problem.
Since Gingrich entered the race this spring, fundraising has been anemic and the combative former congressman has strayed off message repeatedly, most memorably in his NBC "Meet the Press" interview just days after entering the race in which he bashed a Republican budget plan that had passed the House as "right-wing social engineering."
But Gingrich sometimes seemed more interested in placating his wife than serious campaigning. And Callista Gingrich’s iron-fisted control over her husband’s calendar made planning nearly impossible. Gingrich would sometimes be late to meetings with donors because his wife needed some time at a hotel to freshen up. He would try to book trips so he could be home in time for his wife’s choir practice.
Admirable in a husband. But perhaps incompatible with the grueling schedule needed of a serious presidential candidate.
"Yes, Newt is guilty of putting family ahead of politics," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said.
From the start, Gingrich put his wife front and center in the campaign, answering questions with "Callista and I" and featuring her picture prominently on his website. To a certain degree, it seemed an attempt to prove to social conservatives and other Republicans skeptical of him for his adulterous past. Gingrich, 67, has acknowledged he carried on an affair with Callista when he was speaker of the House and she worked at the House Agriculture Committee.
But, even if she did help bolster an image of Gingrich as a family man, she was linked with distractions early in the campaign. It was jewelry Gingrich bought for his wife that spurred days of bad press coverage focused on a no-interest line of credit worth up to $500,000, reinforcing the image that he was out-of-touch with regular Americans smarting from the recession.
Exacting and precise, Callista Gingrich, 45, is a slender concert pianist who sings in the choir of her Catholic church. She has a signature look: ramrod straight posture, elegant clothes, tight smile and flawlessly coiffed blond hair.
Since they married, the Gingriches have modeled their marriage on the partnership of Ronald and Nancy Reagan: a partnership.
They produce political documentaries together and screening those movies before tea party organizations and other groups has become a key part of Gingrich’s presidential effort, a quixotic strategy some aides believe should be scrapped in favor of more on traditional grass-roots events.
Still, the couple seems intent on having a partnership of equals.
So much so that when they when they shoot a documentary they will go back into the editing booth and reshoot if one spouse has more lines than the other.
Newt Gingrich: www.newtexplore2012.com